A stock image shows a Black child using an inhaler.

All around the East Bay, adults, kids, and elders are wearing masks and sharing supplies to filter out the incinerated cars, gasified pesticides, petrochemicals, and (ironically) potentially noxious flame retardant fumes billowing down from the fires in the north. People have reported nosebleeds, dizziness, persistent coughing, uncontrollable vomiting, and other symptoms. Does race affect who is most vulnerable in this smoky mess?

Absolutely. Here are just three ways — please feel free to add more in comments.

1. White people probably don’t have to worry about being arrested and deported from an emergency shelter.

Fear of racial profiling, arrest, and deportation is giving some undocumented immigrant families (you know, the types that white County Sheriffs say “look illegal”) second thoughts about seeking emergency shelter and resources. And because farmworkers rely on fleeting harvest opportunities for their paychecks, some are even trying to keep picking fruit amidst the toxic smoke, increasing their risk of exposure. If you’d like to help support undocumented communities, check out the UndocuFund — for fire relief in Sonoma County.

2. Indigenous communities — whose knowledge of safe forest burning has long been ignored or suppressed — will not be eligible for federal aid.

The U.S. government itself acknowledges that colonization has suppressed indigenous knowledge of how to burn forests properly. These deliberate forms of burning have been used for millennia to strategically tend the landscape and prevent spontaneous lightning fires. (Check out this video for an example from the Mono people of Central California.)

From the USDA and US Forest Service:

“Colonization and subsequent governmental fire policy mandates have disrupted the cultural use of fire, which in turn has disrupted ecological functions where those fires are absent. As society grapples with the devastating impacts of wildfires and the loss of biological diversity, many Indigenous people see traditional fire use as a key to mitigation of devastating losses while retaining traditional livelihoods associated with burning. Indigenous burning in California is a keystone process, which creates heterogeneity of species and habitats while also promoting many culturally significant foods, materials and other resources of value to Indigenous communities and society.”

It fits a disturbing social pattern around climate disasters: those contributing the least to the problem are often forced to suffer its worst effects. Journalist Debra Utacia Krol, an enrolled member of the Xolon Salinan Tribe from the Central California Coast Ranges, describes some of the devastation.

In the early hours of Monday morning, Robert Geary took a harrowing trip out of harm’s way as fires encroached on his home in Clearlake, California. “We followed the fire truck out in our van,” says Geary, a member of the Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians. “The fire was on both sides of the road, and we could feel the heat. We had our three youngest kids lying down under a blanket so they wouldn’t be so scared.” …

Geary says that the winds were so strong in his Lake County-area rancheria that the tops of electric poles sheared off…

The Elem Colony is one of four tribes in Lake County, north of San Francisco, where fires have already burned more than 100,000 acres and killed more than 30 people. Many of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties’ 21 tribal communities are feeling the impact of the fires, as members are displaced and tribal governments struggle to provide needed services.

Don’t people indigenous to the places in California now suffering — from the Berkeley organizers who had to cancel the annual Indigenous Peoples Day powwow due to smoke; to folks native to the Santa Cruz area where new fires already cropping up — deserve just as much assistance, if not more?

3. Decades of anti-Blackness have driven Black folks out of Oakland homes and onto the streets: a disaster for dealing with toxic air.

August 2017: On the morning of a surprise encampment eviction in West Oakland, Candy (name changed to protect anonymity) had to hastily pack all the belongings in her large orange and gray tent, including this bedside stand and photo of her daughter. With very few options for relocation and less than 7 hours’ overnight notice to move, she had to prioritize what was most important. Photo taken with permission, by the author, while helping to pack.

As we’ve mentioned before, homeless folks are more vulnerable to toxic air (with fewer options to retreat indoors), and the housing crisis itself is the result of racist displacement, eviction, and gentrification in Oakland. Homelessness has jumped by 25% in the past 2 years, and 70% of the people living on Oakland’s streets are Black — though Black people are now only 28% of the Town’s population, according to 2010 Census data.

This didn’t just happen for no reason.

Oakland’s communities of color were hard-hit by the predatory lending and foreclosure crisis. That astronomical mass pilfering (remember the bank bailouts and “golden parachute” severance packages?) left the average Black U.S. family $98,000 poorer than they would have been without the recession.

In this map of Alameda County, the reddest areas had the highest percentage of African-American residents, according to Census data from the year 2000. The black data points show home foreclosures between 2009 and 2010. Map created in 2012 by Pietro Anders Calogero, PhD in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley.

According to the Pew Research Center,

[T]he bursting of the housing market bubble in 2006 and the recession that followed from late 2007 to mid-2009 took a far greater toll on the wealth of minorities than whites. From 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households, compared with just 16% among white households.

Combine that loss of wealth and homeownership with a long-brewing Bay Area housing shortage; skyrocketing rents; and good old-fashioned racist landlords; and you get the picture.

Oakland residents of color have been getting pushed out of their homes for a long time — on top of these occupied Ohlone lands of Huichin being colonized and stolen in the first place.

Keep that in mind: even as we support emergency health measures for the most vulnerable people in our area, let’s remember why we must also speak up about the bigger picture, responding to natural and political disasters.